Cunning Neighbours

The source of this latest meditation on Proverbs or Izaga ngesiZulu is a proverb that runs

amaqili awakhelani

the cunning do not build next to one another

It falls under Nyembezi’s classificiation of Ukwethembeka nokungathembeki – Honesty and Dishonesty. The first sub-section of these proverbs is Inkohliso (Deception), which I’ve dealt with grammatically in another post. The proverbs here are not the focus of today’s blog, but they will be soon.

Today’s sub-section is Ubuqili – Cunning. First, let’s unpack what ubuqili actually is.

I(li)qili (plural amaqili) is a cunning person. More specifically, according to Vilakazi and Doke, “a clever, cunning or crafty person”. It gives rise to an essential noun, ubuqili, which means “cleverness, cunning, craftiness or trickery”, offering the synonyms ubungqa and ubungqo. It also has a denominative verb, ukuqiliza, meaning “to be cunning, play tricks, or act craftily”.

But it’s not only that the cunning don’t make good neighbours, they also don’t engage in trade with one another, and they don’t sleep in the same room. Amaqili awathengani and amaqili kalali ndlininye express these exact phrases. So basically they’re incompatible with each other.

And the reasons for this are expressed by the other proverbs in this section. The first is one of my favourites, because it involves the practice of roasting and eating locusts. Other bits of idiom to do with locusts include “wethemb’ inqond’ elingenantethe” (he trusts in a leg without an attached locust) and “uyokomel’ othini njengentethe” (you shall dry up on a twig like a locust). This one is not a threat.

iqili (ng)elintethe-zosiwa-muva

an iqili is one-of-those-locusts-roasted-last-people

You see, this saying predates amagwinya and niknaks from a roadside vendor on the way to herding cattle. Foraging for food was the norm among abelusi. And what one did was to find and skewer locusts over the course of the day. Once enough had been gathered, someone would light a fire and begin roasting the catch. Everyone would share the sticks of locusts, each taking one insect and crunching through it with glee. The cunning one, however, would wait longer than anyone else to produce a full stick’s worth. He’d wait until everyone had eaten their fill of the locusts, and so he had the whole stick to himself. Clever boy. But not necessarily well-liked.

So, what do you do to deal with iqili? How does one stop him from continuing with his tricks? Well, isiZulu has a saying for that too:

ameva ayabangulana

thorns remove each other

In English, the expression is “send a thief to catch a thief” or even “fight fire with fire”. In isiZulu, the idea is based around a perennial problem – what to do when one has trodden on a wickedly long acacia thorn. Before cunningly crafted metal tweezers, people would apparently carry thorns around with them in order to do a similar job. Apparently, nothing was better for removing thorns than another thorn. So too with the cunning tricksters – they can only be defeated by one of their own kind. A related saying is that:

iqili lidliwa ngamany’ amaqili

an iqili is consumed by other amaqili

Many of the tricks of iqili are related to speech, and as such there are a number of proverbs here about that too. They relate most closely to the actual mouth, umlomo. Here are a few of them:

umlomo awushaywa {the mouth is not struck}

umlomo yishoba lokuziphungela {the mouth is a tail for driving off flies}

umlomo yisihlangu sokuzivikela {the mouth is a shield for self-defence}


umlomo kawukhelwa hlahla {a mouth does not have any branch picked for it}

Basically, even though the mouth may be the cause of much strife, and may be responsible for many issues in life, it never receives any form of physical punishment – while at the same time being useful for self-defence and preservation. A person’s speech may cause strife, but it is expected that it will likewise be used in an individual’s defence.

The final proverbs in this sub-category are to do with legal matters – after all, what could be more cunning than a lawyer (or a weasel, not to put too fine a point on it)? The first of two proverbs to do with icala has already been discussed here, together with a close analysis of the word itself. But there’s one that wasn’t discussed there:

kakucala laswel’ izaba

there is no case that ever lacked justification/excuses

Which seems like a fitting place to leave it, in light of present political matters.


Pecking at the Sun

There is a vast collection of izaga about success and failure ngesiZulu, and these are some of the most common of them all (and some of the most figurative). Luck, misfortune, unsuccesful attempts, impossible feats, failure, despair, uncertainty and rivalry are all discussed in this part of the izaga.

The first section of these proverbs is those eziqondene nenhlanhla (to do with luck). In English, if you want to say someone was born lucky you refer to silver spoons – isiZulu says uphakathi komhlane nembeleko (you are between the back and the carrying skin) instead, which is a reference to the way that babies were transported before blankets, in a softened carrying-skin called an imbeleko. You are at your safest, and your most fortunate, when you are between your Mama’s back and the carrying skin. This imbeleko features in another proverb too, to do with a loss of hope, which is that akulahlwa mbeleko ngokufelwa (the carrying skin isn’t thrown away when there is bereavement), an encouragement to mothers to have hope for the future.

If you want to say that something lucky occurred, you don’t talk about carrying-skins. Put yourself in the shoes (so to speak) of someone attending a traditional ceremony (an umcimbi or umsebenzi) at which an animal will be sacrificed. After the deed is done, after the man with the knife has pierced the animal at the third cervical vertebra (an isiZulu expression, uyihlabe esikhonkosini, which means that ‘you hit the nail on the head) and the meat is being divvied up, you eagerly await your portion. During the process of cutting pieces of meat, some of it falls on the ground. It is considered to be most lucky if (inyama) iwe ngoboya (the meat fell hair-side down) – which is an expression reminiscent of toast falling butter-side-up. So next time you want to say “that was lucky”, think of not having to pick grit from your steak as you chew.

There are, to balance out all those lovely proverbs about luck, an enormous number of izaga eziphathelene namashwa (proverbs dealing with misfortune). The word ishwa is one I spent a lot of time with during my MA – it is derived from the ideophone shwa denoting the streaking of a comet across the sky, or of a horn ripping a red gash in the side of a cow. Misfortune is thus sharp and sudden and destructive.

There are so many proverbs in this section that Prof Nyembezi grouped them into sub-groups. The first proverb I’ve chosen here is ilumbo lidla umninilo (the magic eats its owner), which is a perfect corollary for the English expression used by Shakespeare in Hamlet Act 3, Scene 4, line 207 –

For tis the sport to have the engineer
Hoist with his own petar

Where the petar(d) was a cone filled with explosive in order to break open fortified doors. You had to light it and run, and if you didn’t get out of the way in time you would be hoisted up into the air by it and, most probably, die. Thus you would be destroyed by your own artifice, as the wizard would be if tainted by his own magic. There are many other versions of this proverb – uzidlise ngobuthi bakhe (he has poisoned himself with his own poison), uzihlabe ngowakhe (he stabbed himself with his own spear), and inqaba inqabela umniniyo (the fortress denies its owner entry).

The second one in the misfortune category is negwababa lize liphathe umgodo nonhloyile afise (even the crow will have a piece of excrement that the hawk envies). It falls into the section of ‘fortune is fickle’. Basically, the hawk is a very successful hunter, and usually gets enough to eat. By contrast, the crow is a carrion-eater and much less formidable in general. But the tables may turn one day, and the crow could have something that the hawk longs for. To modernize this, one might say that the Alexandrian shack-dweller might one day have something the Sandtonite values. One might also say that the Sandtonite should help the Alexandrian, as one day the Alexandrian might be in a position to help him/her.

Finally, in this section on amashwa, there is the proverb kuhlwile phambili, kusile emuva (it’s gone dark ahead, and it has risen behind). This is an expression used when the approaching situation seems to bad to continue, and one should withdraw before too much is lost.

The next set of proverbs are those eziphathelene nokwenza okungenakuba nampumelelo (concerning acting without success), another group erring on the pessimistic side of the spectrum. My favourite here has to do with the mirage, uTalagu. The coolest thing here is that the mirage is a person – for thise reason, I told my kids a whole story cycle involving uNogandilanga (the Barbet) and uTalagu. The proverb here is uyoze ubambe utalagu ngesandla (you will eventually catch Talagu in your hands). It means that you are engaging in an act of futility, similar to traversing Joburg during an umnyamangabomu.

Another proverb in this category has special resonance for me, since it concerns my happy place, the kitchen. Umpheki udla intuthu (the cook eats smoke) is self-explanatory, as it tells the story of hard work in the kitchen going unrewarded.

These next two are among the most useful things you can say when something’s utterly impossible, izaga eziqondene nento engenakwenzeka noma sekunjani (the proverbs dealing with things that can never happen, no matter what). In English, this is the realm of flying pigs. In isiZulu there are a lot of different options here – though my personal favourite (for obvious reasons) is that umlungu angathunga isicoco (a white man could weave a headring). An isicoco is a marker of a man’s maturity in the culture of the amaZulu, and would be woven together once he had become an umnumzane. However, there would be no need of an umlungu weaving one of those, as there are different markers of that transition in the isilungu culture. So this is an equivalent for ‘pigs might fly’.

Secondly, isiZulu suggests that kungawa ilanga licoshwe zinkukhu (the sun may fall and be pecked up by chickens), which is such a totally awesome image. I imagine the chickens scratching and clucking and going kho kho kho kho kho in the dust, until they find the glowing orb of the sun and start to peck at it, tearing off pieces in a flurry of feathers and beaks and claws.

If you failed to heed the warnings of the previous few categories, then this next one is specially for you – eziphathelene nokwahluleka (proverbs to do with failure). There are many to choose from, including the one about izimbeleko mentioned earlier. The one I’ve chosen here is specifically related to someone being bested in argument – amathe abuyele kwasifuba (the saliva has gone back to the chest). This is equivalent to the English “he was made to swallow his words”.

Another one in this category, of a more generic nature, is that ithemba kalibulali (hope doesn’t kill). This is the heading of a programme on uKhozi FM, in which people phone in to ask for people who’ve disappeared or who’ve abandoned their families. Yes, it’s as grim as it sounds, and I end up in tears if I listen to it. Basically, this is a proverb to say that one shouldn’t die as a result of your hopes being dashed.

If the previous section wasn’t depressing enough, the next one is what happens once you’ve failed – ezingobunzima nokuphela kwethemba (proverbs about hardship and despair). I’ve just chosen one here – ukhukho lumuka nomoya (the mat is going away with the wind). Nyembezi’s explanation here is as follows

the Zulu grass mat for sitting on or for sleeping is easily carried away if there is wind. A person who is very ill, and all attempts at curing him seem useless, is likened unto a mat which is being blown away by the wind.

So when all hope is lost, and death is imminent, people are likened to grass mats.

Only two left in this category of proverbs. The first is those eziqondene nokuthandabuza (proverbs dealing with uncertainty), which might also be termed the “God knows how this is going to turn out” category. The one I’ve chosen here is kayihlatshwa mvusi, ihlatshwa abaphambili (it isn’t stabbed and killed by the ones who raise it, but by those ahead). This proverb is taken from hunting, where one hunting party would raise or flush out game but not necessarily catch or kill the one they raised. It is used most often referring to courting, where one young man will eventually succeed with a particularly beautiful girl who has resisted the advances of many others. It can also be used when someone’s good idea is stolen by others, who then benefit from it.

Finally, once you’ve succeeded or failed, you then have to deal with the fallout – eziphathelene nemibango (proverbs to do with feuds). These are quite visceral, and the one I’ve chosen has to do with the process of butchering a beast after a sacrifice – kwehlukana inhloko nesixhanti (the head is separating from the neck and ribs). When a beast is slaughtered, the various parts are divided up – the head usually goes with the neck and the ribs, but the head itself is specially for the men and so must also be cut away, leaving the isixhanti behind. This expression is used when a final decision is being made in a dispute – because the cut has been made.
So if you’re thinking about luck and misfortune, the images that should be running through your head are those of carrying-skins, meat falling hair side down, crows and hawks and mirages, chickens pecking at the sun and huge pieces of meat being divvied up.

Arguing Coppers

When it comes to wisdom about relationships and enmity, isiZulu has a total of 94 separate proverbs to use in almost every situation. These are some of my favourites, and I particularly enjoy teaching my Class 10s about threats and grudges. In fact, I could write a whole post just about the 24 common proverbs in that sub-category.

The izaga in this group rely quite heavily on natural observation, and also grant a clear view into the martial society of the amaZulu. Before looking at the idea of enmity and threats, it’s important to start with those sayings to do with friendship (eziphathelene nobungane). One of my all-time favourites in this group of ten is ubucwibi obuhle buhamba ngabubili – good waxbills travel in pairs. I used this in a story I wrote for my step-son, Dambuza – what it means is that “two heads are better than one”, because one waxbill (that’s a kind of bird, for all those non-twitchers out there) eats while the other watches for danger. Another proverb in this category is the classic bangamathe nolimi (they are as close as spittle and tongue), which never fails to get an “eeewww” reaction from my classes.

In contrast to those about friendship, isiZulu also has 11 proverbs about enmity and conflict (eziphathelene nobutha nokulwa). Out of all of them, all of the contrasts (enemies are “fowl and wildcat” – inkukhu nempaka) and the expressions for the meeting of opponents on the field of battle (zindala zombili – they’re both full-grown and ready to fight), the one that appeals most to me here is akukho thusi lathetha lilodwa – no copper ever argued alone. Maybe it appeals as a result of our recent spate of copper-theft by local izinyoka, but this proverb speaks of the early trade in brass and copper. Ithusi elimhlophe is brass, where ithusi elibomvu is copper. The verb root seems to be ukuthusa, meaning “to startle someone”, and the ideophone at its heart is thu, an enigmatically wonderful little syllable denoting

1. the puffing out of smoke
2. the sharp report of a gun or a car backfiring
3. demolishing a wall or a house
4. thudding like the beating of carpets or a rifle
5. a pale biscuit or light mustard colour
6. increase, improvement, progress

But that’s a sidetrack, for another blog perhaps. More to the point, this proverb means “it takes two to tango”. A single plate of copper is soundless. put it with another plate and you have a sharp report – THU! Similarly, there is never only one person and one viewpoint in a quarrel.

As I mentioned earlier, isiZulu devotes a wonderfully eloquent section to grudges and threats (eziphathelene namagqubu nezisongo). These would not be out of place in Game of Thrones, and are ideally suited to angry exchanges with taxi drivers or recalcitrant Home Affairs employees. Just a friendly warning, though: be prepared for the spirit of Ilembe’s amabutho to be manifested in a fist to your face if you tell someone ikhanda lingakhel’ ongoso ngelanga (a head can make a home for field-mice in just one day).

Once you’ve made your threats, and decided you’re most decidedly enemies rather than friends, the Japanese would then mention something about digging two graves in your search for revenge. Isizulu speaks of revenge as “ukuphindisa”, a word which literally means “cause to repeat” or “cause to return”. The 6 izaga eziphathelene nokuphindisa generally focus on the destructiveness and inevitability of revenge, but for once there’s a more prosaic proverb I’ve selected here: umenziwa akakhohlwa, kukhohlwa umenzi, which means that “the one done to doesn’t forgets, but the doer forgets”.

In your quest for revenge, there are 18 different proverbs dealing with various types of cruelty and callousness (izaga eziphathelene nolunya). My all-time best one here has a whole story attached to it:  impunzi iyathakatha ngokukhamela icimbi ethuvini beqhina (the duiker bewitches by squeezing out a caterpillar onto the steenbok’s dung). The story goes that there was a certain tree which bore delicious fruit, and that all of the animals were prohibited from eating this fruit, which was a vivid green colour. During the night, while everyone was asleep, the impunzi went and ate a whole bunch of the fruit, until his belly was full and he had had enough, whereupon he went somewhere to sleep it off. He awoke to a great commotion, as all the animals living around the tree had discovered the theft of the fruit. Impunzi sidled up to the council of the animals, just in time to hear Impofu sounding off about the dire punishment awaiting the perpetrator. Impunzi, rather than slinking off guiltily, boldly suggested a way to catch the thief. He contended that, since the fruit was green, the dung of the animal who had stolen the fruit would also be green. The witchhunt began, and they soon discovered that the iqhina’s dung was bright green, and swift punishment awaited him. Nobody noticed the empty carapaces of the amacimbi behind the next tree, some green entrails still dripping from them. And nobody saw the duiker’s evil little smile.

IsiZulu devotes almost as much time to stubbornness (inkani) as it does to the other sections. One chosen at random here is said when someone is manifestly not listening:  wofika kwangqingetshe (you will reach the-place-of-tight-fastness-as-of-a-rock). One might say that the person is going to hit their head on something hard, but making it into a locative (KwaNgqingetshe) somehow makes it more lyrical, as though the place belonged to a person whose name was ‘Rock-solid’. Another one here (because I know you want more) is isalakutshelwa sibona ngomopho – the-one-who-refuses-to-be-told sees by-the-flow-of-blood. The fool learns by hitting his head.

Finally, after all the stubbornness and cruelty, all the friends and enemies and vengeance and threats, there are a few proverbs dealing with bravery and cowardice (eziphathelene nobuqhawe nobugwala). You’d be right in assuming that is section is particularly important to the amaZulu, fearsome warriors that they are. Of the nine proverbs here, I have chosen  indoda ifela ezinkomeni – a man dies among the cattle. The import of this proverb should be obvious, from all that has been said here and elsewhere about the importance of the cattle in the life of the amaZulu. In case it isn’t, here’s what it means – a man should die defending the things that matter most to him, bravely and without any trace of cowardice.

Now that you’ve learnt a few ways to make enemies and insult people ngesiZulu, as well as the earlier explorations of home truths (Hyena Gravy) and Ubuntu (A Bird’s Kidney), you’re now ready to explore the idea of luck, success and misfortune. But only next week.

Hyena Gravy

In the Inqolobane yesizwe, by Nxumalo and Nyembezi, there are 41 different categories of proverbs in isiZulu. 41. Just think about that for a second. The 41st one is ‘miscellaneous’. It alone has 100 different proverbs.

There are 929 proverbs collected in this one book. This list is not exhaustive, at all. And all of these come from an oral tradition, so they would all have been remembered orally long before they were first written down. This is something that many proverbs in many languages have in common.

They are perfectly formed, weathered by time and the scars of the first valley-languages that gave them birth. They defy initial understanding, and some can only truly be understood after years of cattle-herding, after long seasons in the veld spent observing animals and insects. They are rhythmic, tonal, musical haikus of reference and history and meaning.

IsiZulu doesn’t have the monopoly on proverbs, of course. Have a look at the bible. Go and find a Brewers. How many are there in the book of Proverbs?

While I let that sink in, and since I hope to have ignited some kind of spark in your mind, I’m going to carry on.

I’ll give you the category of proverbs, then one representative one from each category. It’s really hard, limiting it to just one proverb. They’re all awesome in their own special way. Today I’m just going to focus on the first category.

The first main category is those proverbs related to the home (ezasekhaya). In it there are eight different sub-categories.

First, those pertaining to marriage (eziphathelene nomendo). Marriage is something which varies greatly across cultures, and for more info on the idea ngesiZulu, you can look here. The proverb I have chosen from this section for is uthand’ alukhethi ludwan’ oluwela kulona – love does not choose the blade of grass on which it falls. The English say that “love is blind”.

Secondly, the establishment of the homesteads (ukwesekwa kwemizi). The umuzi is a lot more inclusive than a simple home – it also means the various dwellings and people under the protection of the umnumzane. The isaga I’ve chosen for here is Akukho muz’ ungathunqi ntuthu – there is no homestead where smoke doesn’t issue. Smoke represents quarrelling, and so the proverb means that every home has its quarrels.

The third sub-category is about raising children (ukukhuliswa kwabantwana). Of course, every culture has something to say about this. My favourite here is inkunzi isemathole – the bull is in the calves. Wordsworth said that “the child is father to the man”, but his English stiffness doesn’t hit as close to the mark as the pastoral imagery of the amaZulu.

Fourth is the one to do with heredity (ufuzo). I used this one yesterday, when there was a large Eastrander in the Roman’s Pizzeria in Edenvale together with his identical son: ukhamba lufuz’ imbiza – the small pot is like the big one. Nuff said.

The fifth’s to do with families (imindeni) in general, and isiZulu has a bunch of different proverbs here. One for a taste is ingwe ikhotha amabala ayo amhlophe namnyama – the leopard licks its spots, white and black. Thus the parents (should) give love to all their children, good and bad.

The sixth category here is to do with conversation (izingxoxo), which might seem like a strange thing to include in this section were it not for the importance of speaking and proper turn-taking in conversation in home life. A very common one here is this: ngigeqa amagula ngiyemuka yini? – am I then going away that I should empty the calabashes? In a roundabout way (involving amasi, of course) what this means is basically “do you want to empty me of all stories as though you were never going to see me again?” and is used when someone is tired of telling stories. The expression ukugeqa amagula can also mean “to come clean”.

The penultimate category for home proverbs is those to do with borrowing and lending (ukweboleka) – always a contentious one, just ask Polonius. The proverbs are a little weird here, and the weirdest is this: into yomuntu ngumhluzi wempisi – a thing belonging to someone else is hyena gravy. According to Nyembezi,

there is a legend which is connected with this expression. The story goes that once upon a time the people of a certain village killed a hyena and cooked it. The gravy they mixed with the uphoko meal to make it thick. To their great amazement, however, the gravy would not thicken. More meal was added, but the gravy still remained as watery as before. When the people had wasted much of their meal with no success, they realized that the gravy of a hyena was useless. Some people state that the expression is derived from from the fact that a hyena is not eaten. Its gravy, therefore, would be of no use to anyone.

What this means is that another person’s possession, when borrowed, is as much use as hyena gravy because it can be recalled at any moment.

Finally, there are the proverbs about what is right and proper (ezingokuhamba ngemfanelo). The one I’ve chosen here again harks back to the pastoral environment: ayikhab’ izibay’ ezimbili – the cow doesn’t kick in two kraals. What that means is that a man is only master in his own home, and a woman is only mistress in her own home too.

So until next time, I leave you with these eight proverbs and their assorted imagery – kicking cows, hyena gravy, maas-calabashes, leopards’ spots, little pots, bulls in calves, smoking homesteads and love falling on blades of grass. Next are those to do with ubuntu.